Tech Solutions to the Climate Crisis, and the Dream of a Better World
I've been on this climate path for about 18 months, and as I'm reflecting on what direction to take next, I've been thinking a lot about the role of technology (specifically software) and technologists in tackling the climate crisis. I will caveat all of the following with: this is a view through my own lens, and I am by no means an authority on this stuff. I've gone down this path myself, but this is very much from my own experience - take it or leave it as you will.
When I started on my climate journey (no, not that climate journey), I had no clue about what, if anything, software could contribute to tackling climate change. I dove into researching both climate change itself and potential solutions, and came across many interesting resources that made me more hopeful that there were solutions, but still lost as to what I could do. I know software, I know data, but know little of building hardware nor of organising activism.
Building for the sake of building
Still, I'm a (software) engineer, so I did what engineers do - I built something. In my case, I created a website collating climate resources - Forge the Future. There are a few more of them out there now than there were last year, but it was not a unique proposition even then. Even so, it felt like a way to use my research for good, and building things felt good - getting stuck in, creating something, keeping my hands busy so to speak. Whilst I've certainly had a decent handful of folks reach out saying they've found the site useful, I really can't say it's had a huge impact.
That leads me onto my first point. I'm a member of at least 3 or 4 different Slack communities focused on climate matters in one way or another, totalling at least a few thousand people. Many of these folks are from tech backgrounds like me, and I keep seeing similar patterns to my own playing out. People want to do something to tackle the climate, so they join a community, read up on carbon footprints and potential solutions, and immediately want to get stuck in, and try to build something. This often takes the form of an app, or a guide. Maybe it's focused on calculating your carbon footprint, maybe it's a guide on how to decrease your climate impact.
We don't need another personal carbon footprint app
Unfortunately, I'm not sure the world really needs another climate guide, nor more carbon footprint apps. Aside from the difficulty of actually engaging people with such apps (even the most useful app categories are difficult to gain traction in), doing such projects well is hard - climate change is complex, and gathering the information takes time. Calculating carbon footprints is notoriously difficult, and whilst there are a couple of apps that have succeeded, it's a hard path to start down.
However, the biggest objection I have around this stuff is the overall narrative. In the Western world, and particularly the American mindset, individualism is strong, and individual action makes sense, it's empowering in an overwhelming situation - what can I do to tackle this? And yes, there are absolutely actions you can and should take to reduce your footprint - cutting down on meat consumption, switching energy supplier, flying less. However, ultimately, the ball lies in the court of governments and big corporations. Let’s not forget that BP basically invented the concept of personal carbon footprints, in the name of shifting blame from corporations to consumers.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this pretty clearly - we have a near global lockdown, mass unemployment, travel is all but non-existent, and most people's personal footprints have plummeted through being stuck inside. And yet, even with that massive change, global emissions have only dropped a few percent this year. If a worldwide virus pandemic that nearly broke the world's economy hasn't cut emissions enough to keep us on track for 2°C, I don't think encouraging your friends to recycle their milk cartons is going to do the trick. Creating an app to track and reduce footprints is not just missing the point, it actively distracts from the very real work that needs doing.
Silicon Valley Syndrome
This is painful when you first realise it. Everyone wants to believe that they can make a difference, and (software) engineers, particularly those exposed to the silicon valley/startup mindset, are often taught that software and apps can change the world. Finding out that that's not the case, that there's a problem that can't be solved in that way can be demoralising and frustrating.
I saw some of the same mindset when I went to work with a venture builder in London at the start of this year. They were aiming to find a market-based approach to climate change, the overall concept being to try and 'hack' the current market system to ensure negative climate externalities were priced - in theory, given such a solution, you use the market to fix itself. It's a grand idea, and at a first pass sounds potentially plausible and intriguing. Again, drawn by that startup mindset, I spent several months trying to find this magic unicorn of an idea that would internalise climate costs whilst somehow making money and scaling fast enough to have real impact.
I don't doubt that there are market-based solutions out there - the field of ESG is ripe for further improvement, and one of my colleagues was investigating some interesting applications of DAOs that could price carbon in interesting ways - but ultimately, they all failed to provide meaningful impact and/or scalability. It felt like we were chasing a unicorn - some sort of mythic beast that somehow scales fast, makes a profit and fixes a planet-scale systemic failing. Maybe I gave up too soon, but it felt like we were a hammer in search of nails, trying to fix a problem with a familiar tool because we've been told that it can solve anything.
So what can you do, as a software engineer? A good approach is to start from the solutions to the climate crisis. In some ways, we're fortunate - we know how to tackle climate change. We have a big list of solutions for most areas. However, we need to scale those solutions up fast.
This means there is a lot of engineering work to be done, just perhaps not quite the web development many of us are used to. The engineering required is hard, and requires finding experts in the respective fields, learning from and working with them. However, these days every single one of the solutions will likely require software at some point along the way, and failing that, software skills can translate into abilities applicable to other fields. There are a good number of organisations out there doing good work in these areas, but if starting your own venture is more your cup of tea, then there’s still plenty of room for newcomers.
If you go down this route, you will need to learn a lot, and fast, and it'll be damn uncomfortable. If you want to know more about these types of solutions, take a look at Project Drawdown - it offers great summaries of 80+ solutions, and has links to a lot of further reading, and is a great starting point in figuring out the highest impact areas and what areas are in most need of attention.
Do bear in mind that none of these solutions are a holy grail - none will solve the climate crisis alone. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that largely you can follow your passions - there are a huge range of different solutions covering all sorts of domains, and they can all have significant impact. The range of solutions also means there are a number of areas that are relatively untouched, with massive scope for improvement. The flip side of that is that one endeavour, one person will never solve the whole problem alone - we need everything, and we need to collaborate to have any chance of success.
There are also pure software solutions, though none are as directly impactful as the direct solutions. Rather than directly tackling emissions, these areas tend to focus on identifying inefficiencies, spotting patterns and other supporting technologies. They are undoubtedly useful, but inherently slightly abstracted from direct climate impact. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable, and there is a huge range of possibilities here too, from greener web tech to data and AI-focused solutions.
The other side of the coin
The other option, that I think many tech folks dismiss, is activism and policy. Ultimately, as the current pandemic has illustrated, the biggest climate levers are held in the hands of government and big corporations. Those entities are slow to move, but have by far the biggest influence on the climate. They are not easy to influence, but do respond to public sentiment, and ultimately, if enough people care, things will change. It's not as exciting an area for an engineer, but it is incredibly effective - see last year’s massive climate protests across the globe, and their effect on climate-based policies from governments and corporations.
That means one of the biggest things you can do is tell people about climate, to spread the word, to get others off the fence and on our side. This can mean protesting in the streets, but it's also an area where websites and similar tech can play a big part, helping to spread the word and get the message to everyone that needs to hear it. As with all aspects of the climate, there are many ways to convey the urgency of the problem, and all of them are needed in unison.
To my eye, the biggest missing element in the climate movement right now is story-telling. It took a long time to get the clear science published on climate change, thanks to obfuscatory efforts from big oil and others, which in turn led scientists to use an over-abundance of caution. However, we largely now have clear numbers on what is happening now, and what will happen in the coming years. Where there is uncertainty, it is mostly in terms of how severe the impacts will be, rather than whether they will occur. What we need now is stories, narratives, clear and simple explainers to make those numbers relatable, to bring them to life. It feels like this falls into two main areas - the carrot and the stick.
The impacts of climate change are truly horrifying. The planet is already being impacted in massive ways, and the changes to come will make what’s happening now look like pocket change. However, simple numbers, changes on a global scale can be hard to relate to. We can talk about 2°C and CO2 ppm until the cows come home, but that means nothing to most people. Heck, I've been immersed in this stuff for over a year, and I still find many of these numbers incredibly abstract.
What’s needed is to identify the areas that everyone cares about, and target information that shows how climate impacts those areas. For a farmer, it may be flooded fields, drought, lowered yields, or plagues of pests. For a city dweller, it may be air pollution, unlivable temperatures or rising sea levels. Everyone has different levers, and I can almost guarantee that at least some of them are affected by climate change. We need to figure out those buttons, and push them. That way we can bring together previously split groups and unite them against the common threat that faces us all.
The other part of the story that I think is often missed is the positive. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative consequences of an impending disaster, and we shouldn’t downplay them by any means, but we humans respond better to rewards than to punishments. The current dialogue around the climate is dominated by doom and gloom - of floods, of species wiped out, mass migration. The stories of how we tackle this crisis involve sacrificing precious comforts - we must give up our cars, our international air travel, we can’t eat meat. It’s a litany of ‘don’t’. For people already struggling to relate to the impacts of climate change, telling them that if we succeed, they won’t be able to have a lot of the things that give them pleasure is a really hard sell.
So what’s the alternative? After all, we do need to cut down on meat consumption, air travel, to reduce food waste. We need to show people that a greener world is a better world, to sell a compelling future vision. Again, every person has different motivators, but there really is something for everyone here. The transition we’re trying to accomplish can result in a better world for almost everyone, and making it more about how it helps people out of their specific problems results in a much more compelling concept.
The climate crisis offers an opportunity not only to swap certain activities for less damaging ones, but to enact sweeping systemic change. We can build a world that’s inherently fairer, where everyone has enough money to live on, safe, efficient housing, and opportunities in life. We can harness technology for good, and mitigate the worst effects of human nature and technology.
The specifics of a greener transition and the resultant world are probably best left for another post, but I think this is one big area where thinking big is not only encouraged, but actually nets a better result - by fixing the underlying systemic reasons behind much of the current exploitation of the planet, we can build a better world for everyone. And that is a vision that anyone can get behind.